Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Beard and BYU: Part Seven

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Seven: Help (Not) Wanted

My own beard card had lasted past my graduation, so I
looked like this in 2006-2007.

It was sometime in the summer of 2006, I believe, when I stopped writing letters to the BYU administration on the subject of future Sikh students and beards. I had graduated from BYU, but found work in Provo so that I could stay in town and work with some playwright friends on developing as faithful writers.

Let me stop and say here that I believe in the power of stories. Our choices are often limited by the ways we know to see the world: a good story increases our ability to choose good by helping us see the world more richly. I think it's very important for Latter-day Saints, as people of deep faith, to have our own stories that expand and enrich our vision.

That's why in April of 2006, some friends and I had come up with the idea of a theatre group called New Play Project which would produce new, short works that were driven by our LDS-values-inflected views of the world. We figured that if we could work with writers who shared our basic values to create better and better plays influenced by our values, we'd be more likely to be able to continue to tell compelling moral and spiritual stories when we moved on to other places. We were also interested in getting at least some practice telling LDS stories in LDS terms while we were still here--our faith community, after all, has its own religious language and we wanted to be able to try out writing in our religious "native tongue" at least once in a while.

Since the other New Play Project founders were all still in school at BYU, we decided to keep productions on campus at first. BYU Experimental Theatre Club sponsored campus productions, and I contributed some of my producing and script development experience to make things happen. Since I was a recent alum, and alumni often worked with various projects on campus, we didn't see any problem with me volunteering for free. The Department Chair and most of the faculty knew what we were doing, and were excited to see additional energy going into extracurricular script development at BYU.

Our first show, in August, was a great success. We performed in an auditorium in the math building (which didn't typically see weekend use) and filled it. The props were simple and the sets were next-to-nonexistent, but the scripts related well with audience concerns and experience, so the show reached them in ways that far "better" productions of more distant plays can't. We felt good.

For our second show, we produced several short overtly Mormon pieces, including my play "Maror," which was based on the true story of parents whose young son falls into a pool and suffers an extended coma before they finally decide to pull the plug. The play looks at the way faith can be challenged and then refined by incredible adversity. I've been told by parents who went through such things that it's accurate but also somehow affirming. I've been told by students who later went on to watch relatives die that the play helped prepare them to face some of the difficult things they did.

I was directing one of the seven short plays in our third set of plays, and so I was at the auditions. I'd come straight from one of my jobs at the time, doing exterior work, so I wasn't dressed particularly neatly, but as a director being at auditions on time and a little disheveled is better than being late and missing actors. A reporter from the campus newspaper, The Daily Universe, also came to cover our auditions and apparently took a picture of me, which apparently made it into the paper.

A week or two later, the BYU Experimental Theatre Club President called me up with bad news. He said he'd been told that I couldn't be involved with the theatre group in anymore, and that the Department Chair, Rodger Sorensen, wanted to meet with me to explain. I knew Rodger fairly well--although I'd only been in the Department for six months, he'd made an effort to make me feel welcome and supported as a student.

When I got to the appointment, Rodger explained that although recent alumni often volunteer on various projects, the College had authority over the Department in matters of non-student involvement in student activities. He told me he'd been shown the picture in the paper by a superior and asked something like "Is this what you want representing BYU? Do you know this guy?" They advised Rodger to end my involvement in his department's activities immediately.

Rodger replied that yes, he knew me, and that he thought I was one of their best recent students. He was excited about the work I was helping with an wanted to see it continue. He even sent them a copy of my play "Maror" and said, "If you want to know who this student is, read this."

Dean Stephen Jones' reply to Rodger specifically mentioned the letter I'd gotten from Janet Sharman in response to my letters about accommodating Sikh students. It was made clear that because of my letters, Rodger was to tell me that I was barred from involvement in any student activities. Ultimate authority over involving non-students in activities did not belong to a department chair, so Rodger had no choice but to agree.

Rodger told me he was sorry I had to go, and that he appreciated me. New Play Project finished the current show on campus, but chose to incorporate and move off campus rather than lose me. I spent another two and a half years with the organization, which required a lot more financial worry and adminstrative effort off-campus, but still managed to do great work artistically and in terms of connecting with the community. Getting banned from student activities worked out just fine, even if it had been a little jarring at the time.

The memory I return to most often from this particular experience, is, in fact, not so much that I got kicked out as that when Rodger Sorensen was asked if he knew who I was, and what I was like, he sent them one of my religious plays.

We are always choosing, out of the facts within our reach, how we want to see people. At the same time I was being seen by various figures in the administration as a troublemaker and an enemy because of my perspective and commitments, Rodger tried to show them my heart as he saw it, manifested in my commitment to God and in the good I did.

I want eyes like Rodger Sorensen's.

Next up: in Part Eight, I pause the narration for a moment to discuss some broader implications of this incident.


  1. While you have the narration paused, something related to the overall theme of this blog but not to the current topic:

    Our son brought home an handout from his school reader with recipes "from a real Mexican-Jewish-American bakery, Los Bagels Bakery & Cafe, in Arcata, California."

    Auntie Sheila


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